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The Details: Two Mysterious Edits by Robert Bresson

Two similar and mysterious moments from _Au hasard Balthazar_ and _Une femme douce_. What's going on here?
On viewing Au hasard Balthazar (1966) at the Robert Bresson retrospective here in New York I noticed this interesting edit:
What's going on here? François Lafarge's miscreant teen Gérard, after insolently facing one of the only characters in the film sympathetic to him, his landlady and boss (or wife of his boss), seems almost to pass through her between the space of one shot (her wiping her tears away) and the next (him walking directly away from her).
What's actually going on here is that in the shot of the woman wiping away her tear, Gérard walks across the frame from left to right, but is so close to the camera he simply seems nearly to fill the frame rather than just move across it. Thus the next shot seems like a 180-degree reverse cut, as if the camera's view point is that of the woman. Actually it's more like a 90-degree cut, with Gérard's back perpendicular to the direction the woman is facing.
A lot of technical detail there, but the effect is that, nearly, it seems in this moment not just of profound empathy but of, seemingly, Gérard being unmoved by it, he walks into and magically passes through this woman. I found this effect, totally artificial and constructed by Bresson's unique disruption of space, very moving—yet another of the director's spontaneous gestures, like the crying: sudden expressions that break with the continuity of previous shots.
A few days later, watching Une femme douce (1969) I saw not precisely the same thing, but something very similar:
Dominique Sanda is followed home against her instructions by the pawnshop owner (Guy Frangin) with whom she just went on a date. She is outside her apartment door; he is on the landing half a flight down. She steps away from her door to respond to his intrusion and his questions. The shot of her places her in the middle of the frame, boxed in by the flight of stairs going up on the left and her door on the right. Upon his promise of what will happen if she agrees to marry him, which is said during a reverse shot, roughly from her point of view, of him down on the landing, Sanda crosses from off-screen right to left. While her iconic army-green coat blocks our view of Frangin, Bresson cuts 90-degrees to the left, and Sanda walks out of the camera into her doorway.
The effect here is even more ambiguous. Even though the first of the two shots connected by the edit has Sanda clearly moving across the frame (unlike in Au hasard Balthazar, where this does happen but is much less spatially and compositionally clear), she still seems to pop out of the camera; and in the previous shot, what was at the center of the frame, thus nearly the image she is "popping out" of or passing through, is that of the consternated pressing of her suitor. Thus despite "blocking" his entreaty with, first, a movement (though indeed the movement, compositionally, is "to" him), and then filling the frame with her body (and closing the door on him), there's something weirdly chemical going on here, some complex combination of bodies and spirits, resistances and acceptances—told spatially through the combination of these precise movements and edits.
Neither sequence has a one-to-one meaning created by the form; yet the use of space and the simple complexity of the suggestions that come from these two edits are at once super ambiguous and super charged. It is a disruption and a unity at once, and such sophisticated and rich evocations from a honed technique is, I think, at the core of what makes Bresson's films so incredible to watch and think about.
The Details is a column that catches the small within the big, focusing on the individual elements that make cinema so expressive.
I think these are attempted point-of-view shots. They do look a bit clumsy and lacking of a Bressonian rigorousness.
I’m pretty sure that’s not what they are, Bobby. These are very intentional editing decisions. I’m less interested in judgement (“clumsy”, really? Why? Because they don’t conform to classical editing patterns?) than in the cinematic effect they have.
They’re not clumsy at all, they’re very interesting wipes.
Great stuff Daniel, I’m really enjoying these idiosyncratic detail analyses. I find technically what makes the cut ‘jar’ initially in the edit from Balthazar is that the camera height is different, Gérard’s shoulder is higher in the first shot (as it is framed for the woman) as he crosses the screen and blocks/wipes past the camera, effectively filling the entire screen with his black jacket. in the following shot where Gérard’s back walks away from camera, he is framed significantly higher as his shoulders are visible right away, so there is a visual disparity in Gérard’s height between the two shots which contributes to visual jarring. In terms of the cinematic effect this has, my reading is that by having Gérard physically eclipse/black-out the woman’s face, he is effectively erasing her from his conscience, by showing us only his back Bresson creatively expresses Gérard’s complete indifference to the woman. the jarring sensation produced by the unusual cut is completely representative of the harshness and insensitivity of Gérard’s total indifference to the woman. In Une Femme Douce, technically the continuity of Elle’s height is very close in both shots, however spatially her body position is significantly off-centered within the in-coming shot, which is visually quite jarring to the eye. Bresson also choses to have Elle already at a significant distance away from the camera, as opposed to beginning with her moving “out” of the camera as he used in Balthazar. I’m sure Bresson and his editor Raymond Lamy spent a bit of time deliberating over the exact outgoing and incoming points of these unique edits; where to end the horizontal-wiping movement of the first shot, should they block the frame entirely before cutting, and then how far forward should the subject be in the following shot, should they completely block/cover the frame (Balthazar) or have them already partially revealed (Une Femme Douce). In both instances the subjects are interrupted and then engaged in dialogue, there is a sense of tension, both characters are in a state of flux and evasion, which Bresson decides to convey by having them eclipse/block-out the others physically with their bodies, cleverly illustrating a sense of avoidance, denial or complete indifference. Bresson deliberately ruptures his very considered and mannered editing style to effectively heighten these two situations. It seems certain that Bresson’s intention was not to create fluid/seamless wiping ‘transitions’ (as is traditionally preferred), but to consciously produce a significantly jarring and spatially disorienting effect on the viewer.
When can we expect IV’s next installment?
Excellent analysis, Antoine! Really eye-opening. ryan: not sure yet, but it’s coming!
Why are we so sure these aren’t POVs? Both scenes have the character in question being looked at as they walk away. I didn’t mean to judge by saying they’re clumsy, but they certainly feel wobbly in relation to the rigor that Bresson usually exhibits. That’s the cinematic effect they have on me. But I don’t remember “Balthazar” enough to hazard a deeper reading of this scene, and I’ve never even seen “Une femme douce”. I do appreciate the interpretation and close attention though.
That’s not to diminish your fine cinematic detective work though! Carry on!
They aren’t POV’s because if you look at where the other characters are spatially it is impossible they could be POVs.
These shots can’t be read as the POV as the characters who are addressing each other do not look directly at the camera, that would effectively be representing their gaze, they are looking/addressing someone just off-camera in both instances. In the case of “Balthazar”, Gérard is glancing downward before the cut to the woman, he is in fact avoiding making eye-contact with the woman. Also in the shot of the woman the cameras height is technically far to low to represent Gérard’s POV, which is unmistakable when we see Gérard’s back, not his head, move through the frame. In the case of “Une Femme Douce” Bresson is using a classic shot-reverse, the characters eyes are clearly looking slightly off-screen, not directly into the camera/characters eyes. This is different to films that intentionally subvert or play with the convention of “POV” by having elaborate tracking/steady-cam shots move through environments (as if from the characters point-of-view), which then leads to the character in fact entering the frame that we assumed was their POV, this is wonderfully illustrated in Kieślowski’s “Trois Couleurs: Rouge” when Valentine enters the Judges house.
One more note, it is also important to acknowledge that Bresson’s cinema is all about fragmenting space, he shoots his scenes predominantly in mid shots to medium close-ups, so his characters are continually moving from one space to another within a scene. Bresson deliberately breaks movement and gestures down into deliberately composed pieces/shots, rather than shooting a scene in master shot or plan-séquence, although he does this occasionally using pans/tilts and/or tracking shots, as in the brilliant shot in “Mouchette” where Mouchette is washing the dishes at the bar. Bresson rigorously and creatively uses screen direction and the continuity of his characters movement from one shot into another, which is why I think these two edits that Daniel has astutely observed, stand out as being unique in Bresson’s cinema, precisely because we are so used to his rigid and severe accordance to the logic of screen direction.
The edit from Une Femme Deuce is a match on action in that Sanda continues her movement in the same direction across the edit. But it confounds expectations because instead of moving closer to the pawnshop owner, she’s opening the door to her apartment – an act the matched action wouldn’t seem to suggest. There’s a lecture that Adrian Martin gave recently that just surfaced on the internet in which he states of the editing in Argent, that one cannot construct a coherent space out of the shots Bresson has provided (he was specifically talking about the elderly woman’s house).
I saw that lecture, too, Sam, after watching films in this series, and agree entirely. One could venture to say all of Bresson’s editing is based on disruption with each edit: at each cut, the world is re-created, with only hints of the world that was created before it.
“…at each cut, the world is re-created, with only hints of the world that was created before it.” That’s exactly how I felt watching Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc”. I’d like to see Bresson’s version.
Great essay! I remember noticing the edit while watching Balthazar at the Film Forum and not being entirely sure what to make of it. Does anybody know where I can find this Adrian Martin lecture? I would very much like to hear it.
We may not have personal jet packs here in the Real Century 21 but we have something far more fun than we could have ever imagined. In this case, the ability to watch movies as “close” as we want, not just once or twice in the theater. I love this sort of thing! (Not that there’s anything wrong with watching movies in a big theater.)
Thanks Thomas! The Martin lecture + others can be found here:
Both scenes are about the power one character has over another. The cutsmake Gerad obiterate the woman who means to help him but he only wants to destroy. Likewise Dominque Sanda asserts her power over Guy Frangin at the start — a power that will remian even after her death.
A good read David; although, in Une femme douce she capitulates to marriage in the cut to the next scene. Part of Bresson’s series of complex contradictions.
Thanks for the link to the Martin lecture!

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